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Queer Injustice: The Widespread Sexual Abuse LGBT People Face in Prison

While sexual violence is part of the daily prison experience for many inmates, LGBT people are disproportionately targeted by staff and prisoners.

The following is an excerpt from Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States, edited by Joey L. Mogul, Andrea J. Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock  (Beacon Press, 2011).


Since sexual violence is one of the principal weapons of policing and punishing perceived sexual deviance and gender nonconformity on the outside, it may come as no surprise that it’s wielded to even greater effect in the highly controlled and violent environment of modern prisons. Roderick Johnson’s case and similarly horrifying experiences of countless other incarcerated queers illustrate the ways in which sexual violence allows prison authorities to control the queered prison environment as a whole.

Studies indicate that as many as one in four female prisoners and one in five male prisoners are subjected to some form of sexual violence at the hands of prison staff and other prisoners. Numbers vary depending on the methodology used in a study or survey, and many victims do not report instances of sexual violence they endure be- cause they fear retaliation, stigmatization, and isolation. Others fail to report assaults because they have become inured to it after years of abuse and forced sexual encounters. Consequently, reported instances of sexual violence represent only the tip of the iceberg. The most recent surveys completed by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) extrapolated that 60,500 incarcerated adults or 4.5 percent of the prison population were sexually abused in 2007 alone, while 3,220 or 12 percent of youth incarcerated in juvenile detention centers were sexually violated by a staff member (10.3 percent) or another youth within the first twelve months of their admission.

While sexual violence is, in many respects, part of the daily prison experience for many inmates–whether they are victims, perpetrators, or forced observers—LGBT people are disproportionately targeted by staff and prisoners. It is now generally accepted by prison officials, experts, sociologists, and prison advocates that prisoners and detainees who are, or perceived to be, gay, transgender, or gender nonconforming are more likely to be sexually assaulted, coerced, and harassed than their heterosexual and gender-conforming counterparts. One study of six male prisons in California in 2007 found that 67 percent of the respondents who identified as LGBT reported having been sexually assaulted by another inmate during their imprisonment, a rate that was fifteen times higher than the rest of the prison population.

The first national survey of violence in the penal system, conducted by the BJS in 2003, found that sexual orientation was the single greatest determinant of sexual abuse in prisons, with 18.5 percent of homosexual inmates reporting they were sexually assaulted, compared to 2.7 percent of heterosexual prisoners. Additionally, it appears that rape victims of all sexualities are subsequently framed as gay and thereby become targets for further violence. According to Bryson Martel, imprisoned in an Arkansas prison for a narcotics-related offense, “You get labeled as a faggot if you get raped. If it gets out and then people know you have been raped, that opens the door for a lot of other predators. Anywhere I was, everybody looked at me like I was a target.”

Sexual violence is often used as a tool by staff and prisoners to enforce gender roles and conformity. A male prisoner’s rank in the hierarchical world of prisons is measured by traits stereotypically associated with masculinity, including physical strength and physique, ability to commit acts of violence and self-defense, and the nature of the offense that led to incarceration. As in larger society, masculinity is privileged while traits stereotypically associated with femininity, synonymous with weakness, are devalued. According to Donaldson, “The prison subculture fuses sexual and social roles and assigns prisoners accordingly . . . in my experience confinement institutions are the most sexist (as well as racist) environment in the country, bar none.”

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